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Making better tech: It's not 'magic'

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(Read caption) The 2010 General Motors concept car, the En-V or ‘Electronic Networked-Vehicle

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The British writer and scientist Arthur C. Clarke proposed three laws of the future, the most memorable of which is that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I felt that way the first time I rode in a car with power windows. In the mid-1960s, the crank-down was the norm. Pushing a button to open a window seemed like something only James Bond could do. But the technology goes back to before World War II. Lincolns and Cadillacs had had power windows since the ’50s.

What was commonplace in some circles was magic to me. Not many kids amuse themselves by making car windows go up and down these days. Nor did I, after a few weeks of annoyed admonitions from my parents.

Once out of its package, a gotta-have-it technology becomes routine. It may be useful. It’s no longer novel. This is not meant as a slight to engineering or marketing. Without the new and improved, we’d still be scratching seeds into the ground with sharp sticks and sending messages by smoke signal (though those were improvements, too, in their day).

Tech that makes one part of the world yawn can still be a wonder in another. Cellphones, for instance, are just now having a profound effect in areas that never had decent phone service.

You may use your cellphone to check e-mail, take pictures, text a friend, play solitaire, and even occasionally make a call. In the African nation of Niger, where phone service was always spotty, cellular technology has let rural farmers leapfrog the land-line phase and go directly to the 21st century. Now, instead of carting produce from market to market, settling for the best price they can get before their harvest spoils, they call around, agree on a price, and make one trip. Because their fingers do the walking, food stays fresh and prices stay steady.


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